Is your Safety Manual A Swiss Army Knife?

One of the funniest things I have seen on the internet lately was an Amazon listing for the Wenger 16999 Swiss Army Knife Giant, the mother of all Swiss army knives.    Weighing in at just over seven pounds and costing the low, low price of $1,371.94, the Wegner 16999 has 87 implements, if you count the toothpick.    The comments left on Amazon are the funniest part.

So here is the tie-in to safety.  Has your safety manual turned into a Swiss army knife that tries to do everything for everybody?   In meeting with clients recently, I have seen several manuals that have outgrown their useful size.  In a couple of cases, the manual fills two volumes.

How do they get this way?  Usually it follows a six step process:

Step 1 . Start with a generic manual that may or may not reflect what is actually being done at the company.

Step 2.  Over time, develop individual policies that really reflect their actual operations, but  don’t replace the original policies out of fear that they are needed to meet some regulatory requirement.

Step 3.  Cut and paste stock wording needed to get a passing grade on one of the online contractor pre-qualification surveys. (“Paste your trenching and shoring policy here.” )

Step 4.  Add specific procedures to meet individual customer requirements.

Step 5.  Update any regulatory changes by adding them to the existing policy.

Step 6.  Develop a shorter, more understandable version that is actually given to the crews in the field, but don’t get rid of the first one.

Optional step – For large companies, let the safety manuals for each business unit evolve on their own so that each one is different.

Sound familiar?  It is a common problem.    In my view it is because we haven’t settled on the purpose of a safety manual.  Yes, we want it to set the rules that keep workers safe, but we want it to do a lot more.   We try to write it in complex legalistic language to satisfy a regulation.  We use it to get a green light on safety questionnaires.  We want it to capture the unique requirements of every customer.

That is why I say we try to turn safety manuals into Swiss army knives.   It is not enough to have a cutting blade.   They need a screw driver, a file, a saw blade and an allen wrench.   Before long, we want a compass, magnifying glass and a cigar cutter.  We suddenly realize that our pocket knife won’t fit in our pocket and our safety manual is so heavy it breaks the shelf.

My belief is that the safety manual is a strategic document – It lays out the steps you take to achieve your purpose of controlling hazards.  As with all strategic documents, it needs to be written clearly and understandably or no one will follow it.   You would never want to ignore regulatory or customer requirements or a need to achieve a passing grade that is a precursor to getting work.   However, you need a manual that lays out what workers need to do in order to perform their jobs safely and it needs to be in language that they will understand.   In other words, use a knife as a knife.  Get a saw if you need to saw something.

If your safety manual has gotten too big to be useful, contact me at

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